Claus Guth’s phenomenal Jenůfa showcases Asmik Grigorian’s remarkable Covent Garden debut

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Jenůfa: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Henrik Nánási (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 28.9.2021. (CC)

Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) © Tristram Kenton

Director – Claus Guth
Set – Michael Levine
Costumes – Gesine Völlm
Lighting – James Farncombe
Choreographer – Teresa Rotemberg
Video – Rocafilm
Dramaturg – Yvonne Gebauer

Jenůfa – Asmik Grigorian
Grandmother Buryjovka – Elena Zilio
Laca – Nicky Spence
Jana – Yeritza Véliz
Foreman – David Stout
Števa Buryja – Saimir Pirgu
Kostelnička – Karita Mattila
Barena – April Koyejo-Audiger
Mayor – Jeremy White
Mayor’s Wife – Helene Schneiderman
Karolka – Jacquelyn Stucker
Tetka (Aunt) – Renata Skarelyte

Claus Guth’s production of Janáček’s harrowing opera Jenůfa is very deliberately claustrophobic. Whether walled in, surrounded on all sides by silent watchers, or observed by a raven of death while caged in, the result is that the heightened emotions of small-town life are magnified a thousandfold as characters are driven to murder and the brink of madness. Sometimes the characters appear as dwarfed by their surroundings: their circumstances are greater than their free will seems to be the message. Underscoring this feeling of latent doom is the lighting, which ranges from the clinical to the portentous to the disturbingly blanched, temporarily stripping the stage of all emotion, to the second act chorus in ominous silhouette. That sense of claustrophobia comes from Janáček’s music of course – all those repetitions of fragments, the unsettling feeling that the music could burst out into melody, only for the expectation to be confounded. But most of all it the obsessiveness of Janáček’s repetitions that surely inspired Guth to this phenomenal staging.

A slatted screen that begins all three acts, through which parts of the stage are visible, offers another layer of distancing, as if we are observers of a tragedy the pain and denouement of which is there from the very beginning. The ‘factory’ of the first act doubles as some sort of old-fashioned idea of a mental institution. In Act II, Karita Mattila (Kostelnička) and Asmik Grigorian (Jenůfa) are seen in a cage around which a raven crawls and climbs. Colours are dulled or monochromatic, so that when we do get a primary colour – the green of a rosemary bush at one point – it is Nature herself who seems out of place, who has been beaten into second place by an insular, constricted society. Similarly, the bright traditional Czech costumes of the final act seemed curiously out of place, their inherent happiness dulled; only a starlit sky ahead of the opera’s close reminds us there is a greater Nature out there, but within the context of this staging, we are left asking ourselves just how benevolent it is …

The idea of boxes of restraint within boxes of restraint – and the human impulse to escape those constraints – could only truly work if the musical performances matched the dramaturgical ones. All credit to Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, who inspired the Covent Garden orchestra to their not inconsiderable best, particularly in the string and brass sections. Pacing, too, was masterly, with climaxes (and sudden drops) achieved with maximal control. The occasional balance issue will surely sort itself out as the run progresses.

Asmik Grigorian (Jenůfa) © Tristram Kenton

It seems strange to say after that how such an international, world-renowned cast was the icing on the cake; perhaps the truth is more that they enabled Goth’s vision to penetrate to the core. The Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian’s Jenůfa, made what must be surely one of the most remarkable Covent Garden debuts of recent years. Initially, she looked vulnerable, her sound absolutely believable, at one with her character. As the opera moved on, so did our immersion in her portrayal of this tragic heroine, the ideal match of acting and vocalism. Grigorian shares with Mattila a stage presence which means it is difficult to take one’s eyes off her; this was a keenly awaited house debut, and one that did not disappoint.

The Števa, Saimir Pirgu, was strong of voice but also a tremendous actor (and he certainly did a good drunk), while Nicky Spence was a strong Laca, Pirgu’s perfect point of balance and opposition.

Act II is essentially Kostelnička’s act, and it was then that the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila – herself a great Jenůfa exactly 20 years ago at Covent Garden – came into her own. Mattila’s stage presence is enormous; interesting that while the titular role was a Garden debutante, here was a singer of vast experience. How poignantly and how powerfully Mattila sang, wringing every ounce of lyricism out of the composer’s writing as well as every drop of pathos. Her scene with Laca was mesmeric, as was everything she did; one keenly felt not only the spiralling out of control of her actions but her compassionate motivations behind them.

As Števa, Albanian tenor Pirgu has all the requisite strength, but also demonstrates a phenomenal high register. To have Pirgu and Spence, two fine tenors, as the two male characters intertwined with Jenůfa was a treat indeed. One has to acknowledge the coiled spring of a Grandmother Buryjovka that was Elena Zilio, a dynamo, small of stature, fierce of presence.

Both Yeritza Véliz as Jana and April Koyejo-Audiger as Barena, smaller roles, excelled, as did Jacquelyn Stucker as Karolka – there was no weak link here in the cast. The evening was a true melding of drama (the production will continue to split opinions, I am sure, for many years to come) and dramatic performance from a superb cast and equally superb orchestra.

This is part of a cycle of Janáček operas at the Royal Opera House; postponed by the pandemic and with several changes in the original cast and conductor (it was originally to be Vladimir Jurowski), it bodes well for the continuations.

Colin Clarke

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